Racial Issues in Russia

Not Passing by Swiftly on the Other Side


Russian Baptists commemorate Martin-Luther-King-Day for the second time


M o s c o w – On 20 January, Russian Baptists commemorated Martin-Luther-King-Day for the second time. “Who’s my neighbour?” asked Gennadi Sergienko, Senior Pastor of Moscow’s “Second Baptist Church”, in his sermon. Citing the Good Samaritan, he answered: “It’s the persons whom you pass by most swiftly.” In this service, a former criminal and homeless person reported on two men who did not pass by on the other side. He was converted soon after they unexpectedly informed at Moscow’s Kurskaya train station that God loved him.


“Second Baptist” doesn’t do things halfway. Though it was commemorating the day for the first time, the entire service (including the children’s hour) was dedicated to appreciating those who are different. The issues covered reached from reacting properly to persons with an odour on public transportation to racial affairs.


Another of the congregation’s pastors reported in the service that he saw no need to preach on the topic when it was initially broached. Yet Sergienko pointed out that “our theology is fine – we understand well that God loves all equally. The problems start when we are confronted with reality.” Those Christians who are not aware of the problem have failed to ask Russia’s minorities. After the service, a participant reported on the major tension surrounding the locations of mosques in Moscow.


The “Racial Task Force” (RTF) at the English-language “Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy” attempts to document at least a small fraction of Moscow’s incidents of racial hatred. The cases they list appear to indicate that a black male in Moscow can on the average expect to be physically attacked once every one to three years. Fatal injuries are commonplace. Harassment occurs on a daily basis.


The Task Force reports that a man from Ghana was injured in a Moscow flat on 18 May 2012 by Russians who broke open the door and attacked him as he slept. Afterward, the landlord demanded that the injured man pay for the door repairs and terminated the rental agreement.


In more than one case, bystanders refused to come to the aid of an African who was being attacked and instead filmed the event for home entertainment afterward. In cases during 2012, a policeman stood idly by as a person of colour was being roughed up. Those willing to come to the rescue are often co-suffering Muslims from the Caucasus or Central Asia.


On 8 June, a Congolese man was harassed by an elderly woman on a tram. She screamed: “You monkeys are overrunning our country, what are you doing here? Stalin would have dealt with you – Russia is for Russians.” Yet Africans make up no more than 0,03% of the Russian population (143 million) and Stalin was a Georgian.


At Second Baptist, more than one speaker referred to a major transformation transpiring within the ex-Soviet societies. Ruvim Voloshin, a pastor in this congregation from Moldova, reported that all spoke Russian during Soviet times and one was understood as trying to hide something when one switched to another tongue. Today the opposite is true: In Ukraine for ex. speaking in Russian can lead to fistfights. The peoples of Central Asia are no longer seen as “brothers”.


Pastor Sergienko mentioned that many Russians now “feel despised by others” in the international realm. This leads them to respond in a defensive or aggressive fashion. Feelings of aggression are then often directed towards minorities within the country.


In his address at Second Baptist, the US-American church journalist William Yoder asked whether identity might be a root cause of racism. “Who qualifies as a Russian?” he asked. “How about a woman with an African father and a Russian mother, who has spent her whole life in Russia - is she Russian? Is it racist to think that a Russian can only be a white European?” Yoder continued: “Is it proper that the honour guards at the Kremlin are all white Slavs? Russia has 110 nationalities. Is it OK that all the policemen in Kazakhstan are Asians? Perhaps the problem in Kazakhstan is connected to the problem in Russia.”


Passivity and shyness on the part of persons of colour appears to be an issue. RTF-head Jennifer Voecks reports that many who have been attacked are very reluctant to report it to the police or even to the RTF. “They do not think that reporting will ever change anything.” Vitaly Vlasenko, Pastor of “Moscow Community Church” and a ringleader in the young Baptist struggle for racial equality, was disappointed that no person of colour could be found to attend his church’s commemoration this year. “We would not have expected them to speak against their wishes”, he assured. “We only wanted to get acquainted and to assure them of our love.” Vlasenko’s congregation held the very first Martin-Luther-King-Day celebration a year ago.


Developments at Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy

Both Jennifer Voecks and MPC-pastor Matthew Laferty describe the state of Moscow’s interracial relations as “stagnate” without clear signs of improvement. Though half the pupils in some grade schools are no longer Russian; they notice no concerted effort to teach tolerance in schools.


Yet at least MPC’s efforts are on the increase. Its Parish Centre was able to move from cramped quarters to the spacious basement of the centrally-located, Lutheran “Peter-and-Paul-Cathedral” last June. The Centre is open every weekday and offers language courses, computer instruction, hospitality and counselling services for refugees and immigrants. This ministry is now more tri-lingual than ever: A French-speaking, mostly-African Lutheran congregation on the compound supplies many of its guests.


Voecks reports that volunteer aid has increased significantly. The congregation is experimenting with “community events” aimed at bringing together Africans and locals. Yet most of these “locals” are themselves expatriates and the need to increase contacts between Africans and Russians is imperative.


A programme to repatriate Africans lured to Russia by dishonest travel agencies remains in place. Its primary purpose is to provide funds for the return flight home. A long-term programme designed to serve mothers and their multi-racial children, “Métis”, is thriving.


Pastor Laferty assures: “We have no right to point fingers at anyone. We want to celebrate the achievements already attained in the struggle for racial equality and continue working on those deficits which remain.”


MPC, which was founded in 1962, is supported by five mainline US denominations including the Presbyterian “PC USA”. MPC’s web address is: “www.mpcrussia.org”.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Moscow, 24 January 2013


This is a journalistic release funded by “Presbyterian News Service”, Louisville/USA, “www.pcusa.org”. It is informational in character and does not express any official position of PNS. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #13-01, 1.049 words, 6.522 keystrokes and spaces.